If you were Doomsday Prepping for the intellectual life, what would you bring?
But I first started thinking about Doomsday Prepping for the Intellectual Life (DPIL) after completing a perfectly ordinary survey sent to faculty at colleges and universities across America by a group who sends them out once a year.
Don’t tell anybody, but I secretly enjoy filling out surveys; filling them out, I sit up straight and make sure my eye-glasses are polished. I feel briefly useful and self-assured. I even enjoy adding “additional comments” and hope that the infinitesimally small pieces of data my throw onto the heap of information help things add up and make sense.
So I was happy enough when initially faced with a survey prepared and distributed by a consortium of professional and scholarly organizations. But as I made my through their I found the survey’s questions appeared oddly skewed.
They seemed to suggest that everything and everyone convert to digital. It had wisps of what might be called electronic-evangelicalism sticking to it. No, the questions didn’t come out and say, “On a scale of 1-5, do you agree that it would be cost-effective to use books published before 1973 as fuel to heat essential campus fitness centers?” But they almost did.
So what I do want when prepping for the end of the world as we know it? All those books some libraries are willing to toss. I want them to shelter me, to feed me, to nurture me and to fill my imagination.
I want books and light enough to read them by; I want stories, and history, and poetry, and science and collections on art, music, architecture, religion,
Libraries are citadels for the mind and the soul; libraries are fortresses for our intellectual and cultural lives. If the world came close to tumbling down, while some people would be running to fallout shelters or to “prepper castles” some of us would be running toward the open stacks. We’d want the lions, Fortitude and Patience, guarding the New York Public Library to defend us.
After all, it's not only the pen that's mightier than the sword, it’s paper too. To guard myself during doomsday, I would want every book in the world.
I want to hoard. Obviously hoarding is a Doomsday impulse. The way that other Doomsday Preppers might be lining their cellars with canned goods, gallons of water, boxes of batteries and cans of Spam, I thought of stock-piling Thackeray, Wharton, James, Eliot, Trollope, Dickens, Alcott, Melville, Hardy, Mantel and Atwood. You definitely look to Margaret Atwood for anything post-apocalyptic. She's been writing about it for years.
I'd also want to make sure I had books by Don DeLillo, Erasmus, Ovid, Elizabeth Gaskell, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, John Milton, Barbara Tuchman and Henry Steele Commanger (great historians put everything in context) Dorothy Parker, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Virginia Woolf, Robert Benchley, Erma Bombeck, Jean Kerr, Dave Barry, Stevie Smith, Angela Carter, Edna O'Brien, and Fay Weldon. You need to mix things up in terms of the reading lists. You would also have every volume of the OED-- the Oxford English Dictionary-- but not the compact ones where the print is too small to read, because that would be tiring if you were reading under tiny battery powered flashlights, candlelight, or, for that matter, under duress of any kind. Remember, it’s not as if you are going to be able to power up your iPad.
How else would I prepare for DPIL? Lots and lots of paper and pens. I'd be using the pens to make marginal notes in all of those books, for one thing. But I'd want to keep a record, too, and be able to tell a story. (This reminds me that, of course, I would want to bring the Illiad and the Odyssey, the Bible, the I-Ching and Stephen King.) Paper would also be useful for other kinds of creativity—drawing, making paper hats, for making tiny sailboats, for making paper airplanes, for putting messages in bottles.
Books in a library, like messages in bottles, pass along meaning in escrow. They offer the past to the present and trust the future with the past. Volumes speaks volumes.